It can only happen in Kenyan athletics.
Barely 48 hours after the country was left reeling in shock following the devastating news that the A sample of Olympic women marathon champion, Jemimah Jelagat Sumgong had tested positive for EPO, the mercurial Kenyan distance runners conjured a fairy tale of Romeo and Juliet proportions.
Paul Lonyangata (2:06:10) and former junior star, Purity Cherotich Rionoripo (2:20:55) — a training partner of Sumgong — took the honours in the men and women races of the Paris Marathon on Sunday, April 9 the latter sealing the win with a new course record to boot, in the French sunshine.
Photos of the couple, Lonyangata on his knees handing his wife a bouquet of flowers under the famous Eiffel Tower went viral, as their enduring story transcended mainstream media and provided rich fodder for blogs.
‘When bae and you succeed’, ‘Kenyan Mr and Mrs tie up Paris Marathon’, ‘Kenyan power couple return Sh12m richer’, ‘Kenyan athletes redeem image with Paris double’ and ‘Husband-wife duo Lonyangata and Rionoripo take Paris Marathon crowns’ were among the catchy headlines locally and abroad that captured the moment.
Lonyangata and Rionoripo, who have a daughter, echoed the achievements of Japanese pair, Tatsuya Hatachi who won the 2013 Surrey International World Music Marathon in 2:47:18 on October 2.
Just more than 12 minutes later, his wife, Rika, crossed the line in 2:59:41, good not only for first in the women’s race but third overall. To top things off, Rika’s time at the British Columbia race was her first sub-3:00 marathon as per the Runners World.
A week earlier, Sam and Jennifer Malmberg of Colorado were the men’s and women’s winners at the Monument Marathon in Nebraska for the second straight year.
The last time a formally recognised Kenyan couple hit the headlines was on 2009 when former Chicago Marathon champions, Moses Mosop and Florence Kiplagat who shave a daughter, set tongues wagging when they won the brutal senior men and women races at the AK/IAAF Permit National Cross Country Championships.
The pair who have since separated in a bitter split that saw Mosop briefly held in police custody when Kiplagat filed a complaint against him, were instantly installed as favourites for gold at the IAAF World Cross in Amman.
While Kiplagat went on to fulfill the role to perfection, becoming the first Kenyan female since Helen Chepng’eno (1994) to lift the senior title, her then husband bombed out to 14th in the corresponding men’s race amid allegations he had ‘deliberately slowed’ down to save himself for a lucrative half marathon in Portugal. He won it a week later.
It was the last event they entered as a formal couple as their romance unraveled shortly thereafter with Kiplagat going on to win the World Half Marathon title and breaking the world record over the distance, twice besides winning the Berlin Marathon twice.
Lonyangata, 24, and Rionoripo, 23, met at the Team Kenya camp for the 2010 IAAF World Junior (Under 20) Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland where the former went won bronze in the men 10,000m as the latter won silver in the 3000m.
“We came from the same county, Pokot and it was easier to hit it off,” Rionoripo who opted to switch for the marathon after attending to maternal duties told a group of international journalists in the IAAF Day in the Life programme who visited the Rosa Associati camp in Kapsabet.
Tokyo marathon winner
“When I got injured in 2014, I made the decision to be a mother and Paul became the father of my daughter.
“She has made me focus more in training and to succeed since I need to give her a better life,” the affable Rionoripo said with a broad smile illuminating her dark face two weeks before her Paris victory.
At the time, her coaches had tipped her to follow in the footsteps of Tokyo Marathon winner and another training partner, Serah Chepchirchir and break the 2:19 barrier, only falling short in the Paris heat.
The Paris Marathon ‘Power Couple’ who are eying selection in Team Kenya for the IAAF World Championships in London are following in a well beaten path where spouses have gone on to dominate the ultimate distance.
The names Gilbert Koech and namesake Charles Koech may not ring a bell among many Kenyans but they forsook their marathon careers to coach their wives — two-time world champion, Edna Kiplagat and three-time New York winner Mary Keitany — to superstardom. Gilbert is a 2:13:45 lifetime best runner when he took the honours at the Las Vegas city race whilst Charles ran 2:08:33 at the 2008 Seoul Marathon before surrendering his ambitions to help Keitany’s career explode.
“I knew him for long as an athlete and as an individual and his discipline, his thoughts on life and ambition attracted me and I felt he was the best person to share my life with,” Kiplagat, the Moscow 2013 and Daegu 2011 world champion said of her husband in her IAAF Focus on Athletes biography.
“Having a husband who understands the sport is the best thing that has happened to me since I can focus on training.
“When we go out for work-outs, he is my coach and when we return home, I’m his wife and the mother of my children.
“He is able to push me and knows when my body is not in great shape,” Keitany told the same group of international journalists in the Day in Life programme when they visited them at their Winstar Hotel in Eldoret town.
Lonyangata and Rionoripo made headlines in Paris only a week after Matthew Kisorio, who was banned for two years for doping before resuming his career in 2014, led his younger brother, Peter Kimeli Some to the Kenyan 1-2 in the men’s race of the April 2 Daegu Marathon in South Korea.
At the time he was banned in 2012 for steroid use, Kisorio was just like Sumgong, a client of the Rosa & Associati management led by Federico Rosa, before he was expelled from the company in the aftermath of his drug bust.
While Kisorio, 27 was head and shoulders above the competition, completing the Daegu course in the second fastest marathon time of his career of 2:07:32, his younger brother dug deep to overhaul the fading Vincent Kipsang to catch the bouquet in 2:09:22.
Another son of the late Some Muge, the first Kenyan to win a medal at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships when he won senior men (12km) bronze at the 1983 edition, Nicholas Kipchirchir Togom is also a reputable distance runner like his siblings Kisorio and Some, and has won the Africa Cross junior title among other accolades.
Brothers Martin Lel and Cyprian Kotut have left a footprint at big city showdowns, with the elder winning at London thrice and New York twice while the younger was the 2016 Paris winner and tipped for major success.
Olympic women 1500m champion, Faith Chepng’etich Kipyegon is the elder sister of 2013 IAAF World Under 20 fourth finisher in 3000m, Caroline Chepkoech Kipkirui.
The Lagats — Bernard who is now an American citizen and Violah — have ran for Kenya the latter who is still in University in the US competing for Kenya at the 2015 Worlds and Rio 2016 Olympics in the 1500m.
Lagat (Bernard) won Kenya silver and bronze at the Athens 2004 and Sydney 2000 Olympics before he went on to win his adopted nation gold medals at the 2007 Worlds in Osaka (two) and the 2010 and 2012 World Indoor Championships.
Her younger sister is yet to win a medal for her nation of birth. Siblings Barnabas and Sally Kipyego have won their nation medals with the former taking senior race bronze at the Mombasa 2007 World Cross and World Half silver in 2009.